Inspired by the Netflix series Snowpiercer's endlessly circling train, a team of scientists, including Swinburne University of Technology’s Professor David Moss have created an ultra-stable light-based computer chip that might one day replace GPS or allow ultra-fast internet speeds.
The device is an ultra-stable version of an optical frequency microcomb – a device that generates very precise frequencies of light an equal distance apart – a bit like the teeth of a comb.
Optical frequency microcombs can act like a ruler for light, allowing scientists to use them for precise time keeping, something that is crucial for next generation telecommunications or for highly accurate mapping to replace GPS.
Much like the train in Snowpiercer that never stops moving, the optical frequency microcomb developed by the team spontaneously self-starts and, even more importantly, naturally recovers and resets itself if disrupted.
“This is a complete game-changer,” says Professor Moss. “The optical micro-comb community has been searching for this discovery for many years. We have now found a way to allow the system to self-start and remain in a given (controllable) state. Most importantly, it naturally self-recovers to the same state even after intentionally being completely disrupted."
Precision timing is essential for systems such as global navigation, satellite mapping, establishing the composition of exoplanets, internet security, and telecommunications.
Professor Moss with colleagues from Monash and RMIT, previously used a similar device to set a new world internet speed record, however, that device was unable to spontaneously self-start or recover from disruptions, something this new device can overcome. The system always comes back to the same state if something happens to disrupt it.
"Further, these combs can be more than 95 per cent efficient, which is unprecedented and critical for practical portable devices,” Professor Moss says.
Lead author of the work Dr Alessia Pasquazi at the University of Loughborough in the UK says you can think of it a bit like the way water normally boils above 100°C: it doesn’t matter what has happened to those water molecules in the past, under normal air pressure they will always boil above 100°C and freeze below zero.
“Similarly, we have created a ‘set-and-forget’ system," says Dr Pasquazi.
These portable ultra-precise optical rulers could also be used in handheld breath scanners for medical diagnosis or even in astronomy to detect small movements of objects, earth-like exoplanets and ultimately measure the stability of fundamental universal physical constants.
The paper outlining this achievement, ’Self-emergence of robust solitons in a microcavity’, has been published in Nature.